Local Inmates Win Awards for Creative Writing Contest, The Zebra, September 6, 2021

One of our favorite parts about our annual writing contests that we hold with the Alexandria Adult Detention Center and the Arlington County Detention Facility is the enthusiasm of our returning judges to be part of this event. Each of them has a strong background in writing, editing, and publishing, and each year they tell me and our authors (during the awards ceremonies) how much they appreciate this honor. Our judge Mary Wadland, Publisher and Editor in Chief of The Zebra Press, gives an insightful and interesting glimpse into what she learned and how she felt reading these inmate’s stories. “The Claw“, the first place fiction winner from the Alexandria Adult Detention Center, “had me on the edge of my seat…”, she write. Me too. Read Mary’s entire feature here.

From Da Bronx to D.M.V.

Jeffrey Melendez

 Third place, Nonfiction, Heard/Arlington County Detention Facility writing contest, August 2021

I can still hear Da Bronx and smell the Bronx. It’s his own world. Very different very unique very alive in spirit, in culture. All different types of races, ethnics, different flags hanging from windows, Puerto Rican, Nigerian, Cuban, Dominican, Jamaican, Ethiopian. We all from different countries but we stick together here in America, here in the Bronx. If we can make it in New York City, we can make it anywhere. I’m proud that I was born there.  I still hear police sirens, honking horns in morning traffic different languages Chinese Swahili Spanish.

I hear car alarms going off and ambulance too. People screaming inside the Yankees stadium. I hear Mr. Softee ice cream truck. I can’t forget I hear the A, B and D train. Music playing through thru windows speakers blaring Salsa, Rap, Merengue, Reggae, Hip-Hop, Soka, Bachata, Danie Hull. The fire hydrant popped because it’s hot that’s all. White man pull-up in the white vans, asking for papers. Pops working late to put food on the table.

You see me I ain’t have the same luxuries I have 2 grandmothers in different countries. I’m a first generation born American I can’t say I’m going to grandmoms today she 2,000 miles away.  In the Bronx I can hear families argue about eviction notice. From High Bridge, Kings Bridge, 3rd Ave. Big Brother telling Little Brother don’t be a loser be a winner.

Moms going to a corrupt church the pastor is the biggest sinner. Moms cooking food, gun shots go-off her son ain’t coming home for dinner. In the corner smells of delicious Jamaican food, curry chicken, coco bread, and beef patties and in the other corner Giovannis Italian Pizza up the block, the Chinese spot. Down the block Dominican restaurant fry plantain with everything delicious. Never mind that half the buildings are rat and roach infested, Black and Brown around here we got Big money invested. We unite U.N.I.T.Y Latinos, African Americans, East Africans, West Africans. We all learn from each other different foods, dances, languages.

This is the Bronx. We are stars. On the rooftops we look up we don’t see stars. We see Police Helicopters and the Goodyear Blimp above the New York Yankees stadium. Shout out my Puerto Ricans, Jamaicans, Hondurans, Haitians, Dominicans, Nigerians, Trinidadians, Asian, and Italians. The good men doing time in Rikers Island. People taking meds in the Asylum. My young youth in the street wilding. No matter where I go I represent where I’m from (The Bronx) I’m from DA B.X.

Out of my Dispair


Nonfiction, Heard/Arlington County Detention Facility/OAR writing contest, August 2021

I am

I am human

I am a citizen

I am not the criminal conviction

I am….


It is with premise that I sought a way out of my dispair. A dispair due to the fact that I and many others were sidelined during the 2020 United States Presidential election because of incarceration. So, on November 3,2020 and the days immediately afterwards, an idea was spawned to create non-profit organization with the focused pledge to aid all eligible formally incarcerated citizens returning to their community exercise their democratic right to vote. This pledge would be achieved, in part, through advocacy, voter education, and voter registration.


The organization would be branded/named:  The Returning Citizen Initiative ©

                        – We’re home, we’re voting – ©

A 501(c) non-profit dedicated to the voting rights of the formally incarcerated citizen returning to their community.


What follows is a considered snapshot of the content to be included in the formal business plan for the establishment of The Returning Citizen Initiative.


Let us concisely place this unique form of the disenfranchisement of ex-felons (the “invisible punishment”) in a historical context.

                        “[T]he slave went free, stood a

                        brief moment in the sun; then moved

                        back again towards slavery.”

                                                                                    W.E.B. DuBois

                                                                                    Black Reconstruction America


In Michelle Alexander’s landmark book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, she opens with a penetrating introduction to Jarvious Cotton:

“Jarvious Cotton cannot vote.  Like his father, grandfather, great-great grandfather, and great-great-great grandfather, he has been denied the right to participate in our electoral democracy…the freedom for those who will make the rules and laws that govern one’s life…His father was barred from voting by poll taxes and literacy test.  Today, Jarvious Cotton cannot vote because he, like many in the United States has been labeled a felon…”


During the previous generations of the Cotton family, there were historical periods referred to as the Reconstruction Era (1863-1877) and the Jim Crow era (1877-1945).  Blacks went from a time where a host of federal civil rights laws protecting the recently freed slaves were passed including the Fifteenth Amendment.  This change to the U.S. Constitution provided that the right to vote must not be withheld on account of race.  Then came Jim Crow (a racial caste system).  It was at the beginning of Jim Crow that the criminal justice system was used to force Blacks back into a system of repression and control, a tactic that would continue for decades to come.


The National Book Award winner, Stamped from the Beginning: The definitive History of Racist Ideas in America, by the Harvard University facility member, Ibram X. Kendi, artfully details how the “Jim Crow Codes” denied Blacks the right to vote through various devices including felon disenfranchisement laws.


“Blacks were disproportionally charged with felonies – in fact, some crimes were specifically defined as felonies with the objective of eliminating Blacks from the electorate – felon disenfranchisement laws effectively suppressed the Black vote as well.”


Now fast forward to the 1983 Drug Reform Act; the 1986 Anti-Drug Abuse Act, 2013 Supreme Court ruling on the 1965 Voting Rights Act; the “Big Lie,” and the current sweeping voter suppression efforts underway in several state legislatures.  With this historical backdrop, The Returning Citizen Initiative’s onramp onto the stage to join with those voices crying to front the returning citizen the right to vote will be a starting point.


Aside from the required process of launching a new 501(c) non-profit organization, the mission of The Returning Citizen Initiative is to ensure the voting rights of the formally incarcerated citizens to their community through advocacy – voter education and voter registration. The vision of The Returning Citizen Initiative is to be a nimble; data-drive, and best practices organization effecting legislation and policy, first on a state level and then on a national level to the benefit of the formally incarcerated. Thereby, creating an opportunity for our brothers and sisters, who have “paid their dues; did their time” to enjoy the dignity, self-confidence, and purpose that participating in the political process – as a full citizen – can endow.


As we approach this important work, we will partner with like mind organizations and policy generators to fill any needs gaps. Armed with a plan, persuasiveness, and persistence, The Returning Citizen Initiative’s initial political lobbying will involve approaching the Virginia State Assembly to pass legislation allowing for the voting by convicted felons while still incarcerated in jail/prison.


On a final note, The Returning Citizen Initiative was born out of dispair. However, I have the unyielding hope that this organization will have an impact on bringing overdue solutions to the issues of the formally incarcerated citizens fully participating in their right to vote – to have their…”moment in the sun.”

Okay, Not Okay

Michael D. Nash

First place, nonfiction, Heard/Arlington County Detention Facility writing contest, August 2021

With over 7.5 billion people on this earth, each and every one of us possesses many different characteristics that uniquely separates us from each other. Because we process and react to life’s mysterious experiences at our own individual pace(s), there are exponential amounts of risk factors that must be considered so that we can know how to best move forward with our lives. More often than not, especially through negative and/or violent experiences, the average person tends to suffer from some form of mental health illness at some varying level. If severe enough, the effects of those traumas will produce a plethora of debilitating physical and psychological deficiencies upon the person(s) affected.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t help either how commonplace it is, especially as Americans, to shun and ridicule people who are probably already hesitant to either actively seek the proper help; let alone even admit that they may have a problem. I felt compelled to write about this issue because I’m empathetic to the despair of others’ concerns during these highly uncertain times. With great uncertainty comes great misery. Imagine free-falling into a vast, infinite void that you’re never sure of when/if you’ll ever make it out. So who’s going to bare the weight of the millions of people suffering from depression? Or the many victims of drug, alcohol, verbal, physical, and sexual abuse?

I commend those that are courageous enough to put themselves out there to help someone else in their time of need. Some of the largest advocates in the movement are celebrities and professional athletes. Shout-out to tennis star Naomi Osaka, Olympic Gold Medalist and swimmer Michael Phelps, former NFL Quarterback Andrew Luck, NBA Champion Kevin Love, and up-and-coming track star Sha’Carri Richardson for putting several familiar faces on the subject of mental health. Their valiant efforts have provided a powerful voice for the voiceless. Singers like Mary J. Blige and Toni Braxton understand that having fame and wealth doesn’t automatically guarantee us peace of mind. With prior underlying issues either present or dorment, additional adversity may materialize from such circumstances.

A wise man once made mention that with more money, there comes more problems. Another thing all of the people mentioned before can relate to is how painful it is to be trapped in that dark place. Conjuring up negative, harmful thoughts/intentions. Although I’ve never had any suicidal thoughts, even up to this point in my incarceration; I understand how overwhelming life can be in every facet. One thing to never be mistaken is the significant psychological toll it takes being an inmate. Not everyone is built for the jail/prison environment.

My first few weeks being locked up did not come easy. Never in a billion lifetimes would I have envisioned myself in my current situation. There were many times throughout this experience when I’ve felt confined to and conflicted in a deep funk. I felt extremely betrayed by someone special to me. Someone I would have done anything for. Nothing made any sense whatsoever. So when I was having those terrifying nightmares early on, they really got to me. The worst part was being reminded by my cell lights waking me up every morning that I was living in a 24/7 nightmare. I was going through it.

Finding myself at the brink of self-implosion on more than several instances and overcoming those burdens has humbled me in ways I almost may have never imagined before. One thing I can certainly attest to is that it takes extraordinary patience in dealing with so many different and oftentimes difficult personalities. As well as the strange, adverse situations. There have been plenty of memorable events in my time away from society. Whether it was competing in a Backgammon tournament, learning to break dance from an ex-NFL Cheerleader, knowing a guy who killed himself in jail, or receiving the news that I lost a family member at the age of 27 a few months into my stay here. I felt really vexed in knowing that he was coming in and out of a coma before eventually being taken off of life support. Some things just can’t simply be forgotten. To this day those occurrences are still surreal. They’re harsh but necessary reminders that life moves faster than we could ever realize and can change in the blink of an eye.

I’ve learned not to take anyone or anything for granted. My journey has forced me to see how much of a mental battle imprisonment is. On the plus-side, however, I’ve been blessed with the contentment of knowing how and when to just sit back and stay still. Something seemingly as simple as taking time away from stressing about the things out of our control and just focusing on being grateful and recovering from tragedy is greatly overlooked and undervalued by many inmates because they aren’t in the correct frame of mind and maybe lack the discipline. I had to realize for myself before anything else that I am stronger than this situation and eventually I did.

Having a solid support system in all of this has played a major contributing role in my ascension as well. Knowing that there’s someone to confide in means so much to me because sometimes it’s not about searching for answers or seeking advice. It’s about speaking your mind and expressing your thoughts, your joys and your frustrations. It’s about being heard. To me that’s one of the greatest feelings in the world.

I take life one day at a time and continue to actively challenge myself physically, mentally, and spiritually to remain sharp. Regardless of whatever happens in my near and distant future, I do not have many worries about prosperity. I am optimistic because of my faith and I encourage everyone going through hardships to become more spiritually involved and connected. It may not change instantaneously, but your life will get better. Be proud of who you are. Remember where you came from and never be ashamed in yourself. Let me reassure you that there’s nothing wrong with making yourself vulnerable sometimes. As long as it is with the intent to learn and grow. And it’s perfectly okay to not be okay right now. Seek the proper professional help when necessary and lend a helping hand to a loved one or someone in need. Realize and utilize your talents and your purpose in this world. Always count your blessings and thank the Lord for them any chance you get.

There’s so much to live for so find that inner-strength whenever you’re in doubt. Once you stand firm in your beliefs and set/achieve realistic goals for yourself, your success will shine through your personality. So stand strong and never give up. The universe has an intriguing way of giving back to you what you put in. Soon enough you will reap the sweet fruits of your labor.